The Maronites (Maronite Catholics) are one of the largest Christian groups in the Middle East. The largest and oldest of the Uniate churches in the Middle East, the Maronite church traces its origins to the schismatic movements within Christianity during the 5th century. Its theology has been influenced by powerful monks and places emphasis on living an austere life.
Maronites have many Orthodox beliefs but are loyal to the Vatican. They use Arabic as their spoken language and Syriac as their liturgical language. Maronites use a Syriac writing known as Karshuni to record their Arabic prayers.
Many Maronites live in Lebanon. They view Lebanon as their unique homeland. Many consider themselves to be of Phoenician not Arab stock. One Maronite told National Geographic, "We are different. We draw our spirt for the mountains not the desert."
As of the early 1900s there were about 1.3 million Maronites. Of these about a half million lived in Lebanon. Others live in Syria, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, Egypt, and the Americas. The 200,000 or so that live the Americas are mostly descendants of Maronites that came from Syrio-Lebanon region during the late Ottoman period
Don Belt wrote in National Geographic: “Speaking French and nurturing a cultural affinity for Europe, the Maronites, alone among Arab Christians, were the majority in a Middle Eastern country when Lebanon gained its independence in 1943. More recently, Maronite Christians have been among the most feared militia fighters in Lebanon’s civil war, waging fierce campaigns against Lebanese factions—Shiite, Sunni, Druze, and Palestinian—in the combat zones of Beirut between 1975 and 1990. But today Lebanon’s Christians, once the majority, find themselves increasingly relegated to the same role that Christians elsewhere in the Middle East know so well. After decades of emigration, their numbers have fallen below 40 percent of the population. To cope, Maronite leaders have forged new alliances: one with the ascendent Shiite group, Hezbollah; another with a coalition of Sunnis and Druze. Meanwhile, the Christian militias have gone underground—but that doesn’t mean they’ve gone soft.” [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, June 2009]
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Early Maronite Catholic History
Most scholars believe the Maronites are named after John Maron, a monk scholar who was named the patriarch of Antioch at the beginning of the 8th century. Other say the group is named after Maron, or Maro of Cyrrhus, a monk from northern Syria who lived in the early 5th century. He was an ascetic who prayed on mountaintops and was said to have special powers. He promoted Orthodox beliefs when the Monothelite doctrine (the view that Christ has but one will) was an issue in the Christian church.
Seemingly destined from the beginning to battle its way through history, Maronite Christians are followers of a fourth-century hermit named Maron.Don Belt wrote in National Geographic: “When St. Maron died in 410, a bitter feud broke out among his followers over custody of his body. Within a generation the Maronites were also battling rival Christian sects over theological issues, and After the arrival of Islam they opposed the Muslims too. Fleeing persecution, they pushed over the mountains from Syria into Lebanon, where they sought out the most inhospitable valleys, fortified their caves and craggy monasteries, and set about defending themselves from the caliph’s army. [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, June 2009]
Maronites were defenders of doctrine of Chalcedon. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the second person of the Trinity, the son, was defined by Orthodox Christians as having two natures, divine and human. The Armenians, Egyptian Christians (Copts), Syrian Orthodox Christians (also known as Jacobites) disagreed and believed that Christ has a single nature, consisting of two natures, with his humanity absorbed into his deity, a concept known as Monophysitism. The split between the Jacobites and the Orthodox Church had theological, and ethnic elements. The Antioch Church was greatly influenced by the Jewish faith as peached by Jesus. The split is sometimes viewed as a conflict between Greek thought and Middle Eastern thought.
The first Maronite church in Lebanon was established in 749. The Maronite held to a Monothelite doctrine, which was the result of compromise on the hotly debated issue of the two natures of Christ and which nature should be emphasized. This view was in opposition to the view of other Syrian Christians. This also made them opponents of Muslims who supported the Syrian Christians over the Orthodox Christian, the Byzantines, who were battling the Muslims.
At the time of the Muslim conquests, the Maronites were dubbed “rebels” by the Muslims but managed to unify under the leadership of strong-willed monks and maintained their existence in the Muslim world. Customs and traditions associated with the powerful monks and standing up to Muslim persecution that grew out of this period still exist today.
Later Maronite Catholic History
In the early years of their existence the Maronites lived mostly in Syria and were strongly linked with the city of Antioch, with the Maronite Patriarch residing in Antioch. Even bishops who were not in Antioch held the title “of Antioch.” Later they were forced to leave their northern Syrian homeland for the mountains of Lebanon to escape attack from Orthodox and Syrian Christians.
Don Belt wrote in National Geographic: “In the late 11th century, when French crusaders marched through on their way to Jerusalem, Maronites poured out of the mountains to greet their fellow Christians. Some 800 years later, when France took charge of Syria (including Lebanon) at the end of World War I, it repaid the Maronites by shaping the future nation of Lebanon to their advantage. [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, June 2009]
In the 12th century when the Crusaders arrived on the coast of Syria, the Maronites welcomed them. By the time the Crusaders took control of the region, the Maronites had renounced Monothelitism and accepted Roman Catholicism. Some scholars argue that the Maronites did this for practical reasons, namely too strengthen their position against the Muslims. During the Crusades, Maronite Catholics struck up a military alliance with the Crusaders against the Muslims, which did not win them many points with the Muslims over the long run.
The Maronites have been allied with Rome since the Crusader period and were the first Syrian (Middle Eastern) church to join Rome and was thus the first Uniate church. One pope called them “a rose among the thorns.” Over time ritualistic aspect of the Catholic church were incorporated into the Maronite Church. In the 18th century an effort was made to Latinize the Maronite churches liturgical procedures and administration and this lead to a conflict within the Maronite church that called for a return to old Maronite traditions.
Maronite Catholics Today
The Maronites are led by a cardinal, known as both a cardinal and a patriarch. Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir served in this position from 1985 to 2011. He was a leader in the effort to drive the Syrian forces out of Lebanon. He was succeeded by Bechara Boutros al-Rahi. The cardinal sometimes resides in Bkirki, the mountain-top seat of Maronite church. The Maronites have lost considerable power in recent years in Lebanon.
Christians in Lebanon feel they are poorly represented in government and discriminated against in the justice system. They boycotted elections in 1994 and 1997 that they regarded as “shams.” They also claim they are unfairly singled out for prosecution of crimes from the old days.
Maronites in Kormakitis, a small village in Turkish Cyprus, listen to church liturgies in Syriac-Aramaic and speak a hybrid dialect of Aramaic, with Arabic, Greek, Latin and Turkish influences, called Cypriot Maronite Arabic (CMA). About 1,000 of the 6,000 Maronites in Cyprus in the early 2000s spoke CMA and around that time they developed an alphabet for their language in an attempt to keep it alive.
Maronite Christian Hermit
Don Belt wrote in National Geographic: “Don Beltwrote in National Geographic: ““On a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean near Beirut, a hermit rises at three in the morning, reaching for a flashlight amid the lumpy familiarity of books that are both his life’s work and his lifelong bedmates. The hermit, who’s 73, long-bearded, and known by the name Father Yuhanna, works there until dawn, translating ancient Christian hymns from Aramaic, the language of Jesus, into modern Arabic, copying them into a giant, leather-bound volume the size of a seat cushion. Then he prays, eats a piece of fruit, pulls on his black habit and cloak, and merrily sets off to deliver 10,000 blessings to every place in the world. [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, June 2009 *-*]
“His first stop, always, is Alaska, where he “stocks up on fresh air.” Then he drifts down through North and South America, jumps to Africa, moves up through the Middle East, sweeps across Europe, then heads east into Russia and Asia before working his way south to Australia. ▪ “Everywhere he goes, he distributes blessings, counting them off one by one on a string of woven rosary beads that fly through his fingers like doves. This daily trip takes three or four hours, and most days—if he doesn’t linger too long over the trouble spots—he’s back home by noon. To the untrained eye, he’s just an old man walking around in a garden. To his friends and followers, who come by the hundreds to hear his teachings about Jesus, he’s a saintly figure, a descendant of influential hermits like Simeon the Elder—a fifth-century ascetic who lived atop a stone pillar in the Syrian countryside for more than 30 years, attracting the pious devotion of locals. -
Maronite Christians in Strife-Torn Lebanon
Don Belt wrote in National Geographic: “Milad Assaf is a genial, middle-aged tile contractor who serves as a foot soldier in the Lebanese Forces (LF), a powerful Maronite political party. From the balcony of his bullet-riddled fifth-floor apartment in east Beirut, Milad has a clear shot at the sprawling Shiite neighborhoods that lie just beyond a busy thoroughfare marking the “red line” between Christian territory and that of the Shiite militias fighting for Hezbollah and its ally, Amal. “It’s kind of like living in a shooting gallery,” he says, laughing. [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, June 2009 -]
“Milad was six years old in April 1975, when a gang of Christians ignited Lebanon’s civil war by opening fire on a bus full of Palestinian refugees; they did it to send a message to the Palestinian fighters then roaming the streets of Beirut, who wanted to turn Lebanon into a base for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The bus attack, which killed 27 people, went down a block from Milad’s house, in front of a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary. Despite hailstorms of small arms fire, rocketpropelled grenades, and Israeli bombs that have whistled through the air here since 1975, the statue doesn’t have a scratch on it. “Think about that for a minute,” says Milad. “Tell me that’s not a miracle!”
“Milad’s neighborhood, Ain al-Rumaneh, is a tough place, full of bulletpocked apartment buildings and small shops. Every flat surface, it seems, is branded with the symbol of the Lebanese Forces, a cross with its base sliced off at an angle, like a sword. After recent clashes with Shiites, Milad and his buddies raised a 15-foot wooden cross on the sidewalk and plastered a plywood wall behind it with huge posters of Jesus. Then they installed floodlights so that Hezbollah fighters across the road would get the following message 24 hours a day: “Ain al-Rumaneh is Christian. Keep the hell out.” By age 12, when he joined the LF, Milad had the swagger of a shabb, or tough guy. He has no idea how many men he killed during the war. He’s been in and out of jail dozens of times and even now, at 40, hasn’t given up the adrenaline-fueled life of a fighter.
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.